The policy formulation in our country is a complex process, involving discussion and consultation with various stake holders. If it requires a law to be passed, it is placed before Parliament; if not then the concerned ministry formulates the policy paper and negotiates its implementation.
We need to remember that bureaucracy is essentially an instrument that the elected leadership uses to carry forward the agenda of the government. It is here that a good bureaucrat stands out while the lazy ones take refuge in files and retires unsung.
It is against this understanding that I attempt to list the players who all played their role that gave India its first ‘Soap’: HUM LOG in 1984.
Soon after the emergency was imposed on June 25,1975, Sanjay Gandhi who had by then begun to yield enormous power formulated a five-point programme to compliment his mother’s ( PM, Indira Gandhi) twenty-point one.
These points dealt with family planning, adult literacy, afforestation, abolition of dowry, slum clearance etc. For Sanjay, however, the focus was to be on family planning, nationally, and on slum clearance when it came to the capital city, Delhi.
No one will disagree that these objectives were laudable except that the impatience in Sanjay got the better of him, and he used brute force wherever possible to advance his agenda.
Surprisingly, these forced sterilizations where happening in our country at a time when several Latin American countries who too suffered from population growth, gender inequality and backwardness- were tasting success by effectively using mass media to tackle these problems.
“Ven Conmigo” (Come With Me), was aired on Mexican TV during 1975-76. It promoted adult literacy. Another serial on Mexican TV “Acompaname” (Come Along With Me) promoted family planning. The serials were directed by Miguel Sabido.
As detergents sponsored the serial, they were called ‘soap’.
It is worth mentioning that India and Mexico enjoyed cordial relations, and the two countries entered into a cultural exchange programme in 1975. But who dare tell Sanjay to seek advice from Mexico while implementing his pet five point programme? His style of functioning was if anything but authoritarian. How else does one explain the banning the film ‘Nasbandi’ – a satire on the sterilization drive, directed by I.S.Johar?
No wonder, the verdict of 1977 was as much for restoration of civil liberties as it was an expression of peoples’ anger over the excesses committed by Sanjay and his henchmen.
We all know that Mrs.Indira Gandhi regretted the excesses committed during the emergency though she may not have admitted that in so many words. After being voted back to power in 1980, she was convinced that the country needed to softer approach towards family planning, and strongly favoured the use of mass media to educate and persuade the masses to voluntarily opt for small-sized family.
Mrs.Gandhi also spoke about the need to have audio-visual programs aimed at adult literacy and women empowerment. In Vasant Sathe, who was entrusted with the portfolio of Information & Broadcasting in 1980, she found someone whom she can trust to come up with an innovative action plan.
It is against this background that we must acknowledge David Poindexter, President of Population Communications International (PC-I), who played a key role in the diffusion of the Mexican entertainment-education soap opera experience to India.
In October, 1981, Mrs. Gandhi paid a state visit to Cancun, Mexico to attend the North-South Summit on ‘Cooperation & Development’. One of the agenda point was seeking greater involvement of rich countries in tackling global backwardness and poverty
It is most likely that during her this, Mrs. Gandhi would have heard the positive impact these soaps / serials were having on the local population. On her return to Delhi, she deputed Vasant Sathe to visit Mexico and understand the phenomenon these soaps were having on local population.
This is when the real action shifts to the Ministry of I & B.
In April 1982 Poindexter was back in New Delhi at the invitation of then then Secretary to the Ministry of I&B, S.B.Lall who was so impressed with the idea that he immediately designated Manzurul Amin, the number two at Doordarshan at that time, to explore the idea of a family planning soap opera. In June 1982, Amin and Poindexter travelled to Mexico City for a briefing by Miguel Sabido- the Director of the serial.
However, nothing much happened because the government got busy with the Asian Games, NAM and Commonwealth Summit; the colour TV was introduced, national network commenced and massive expansion of TV transmitters was undertaken.
Then in mid- 1983, both Poindexter and Sabido were back in Delhi to meet Indira Gandhi. She was quite enthusiastic about the idea of an entertainment-education family planning soap opera. Once the ministry senses the mood of the political leadership – and, in this case, of the Prime Minister- the idea not only gains easy acceptance but also traction.
S.S.Gill who was the new Secretary of I & B, arranged for the Director, Sabido, to conduct a five day workshop for 25 script writers, producers and others in New Delhi. During the workshop Sabido insisted that a television soap opera needed to be broadcast five times a week to achieve desired effects. Indian officials insisted they had only enough resources (equipment, studios, funds, etc.) for a soap opera to be broadcast once a week.
Other influential voices that supported the idea were Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug and Dr. M.S.Swaminathan who had successfully used radio during the green revolution, and I.K.Gujral – all familiar with the work of Population Communications- International.
In January 1984, Gill made a trip to Mexico City for a meeting with Sabido. On return, he set the back rolling for launching Hum Log. He assembled a four-member team: Manohar Shyam Joshi, scriptwriter; P. Kumar Vasudev, director; Satish Garg, executive producer; and Mrs. Shobha Doctor, producer, who created an independent television production company called Time and Video Space Corporation.
The first telecast took place on July 7, 1984. The serial featured actors like Vinod Nagpal, Abhinav Chaturvedi, Seema Bharghava, Divya and Sushma Seth and others. The production cost was recovered from the sale of air time.
The soap was an instant success and enjoyed huge popularity. The genre succeeded in providing “educational entertainment” – a blend of public service messages and melodrama that enraptured millions of viewers. At the end of every episode, veteran Hindi actor Ashok Kumar engaged with the audience. During its entire run lasting 17 months, the serial received over 4 lac letters, viewers sharing their own tale unique to each household.
As per the exhaustive analysis undertaken by Prof. Arvind Singhal of Ohio University and Prof. Everett Rogers of South California University, “the family planning theme was first diluted from the 13th episode. Instead, the theme shifted to status of women, family harmony, national integration, and health. The plot was about the joys and sorrows of a lower-middle class joint family, with a parallel story strand addressing smuggling, political corruption, and underworld activities. ‘Hum Log’ rose rapidly in popularity. When it ended on December 17, 1985, after 156 episodes, its departure was marked by sentimental protests from many viewers.’
According to Audience Research Unit of DD led by young Satish Agarwal, the serial attracted a viewership of 50 million per episode – a large audience considering the reach of DD was just beginning to expand its footprints.
Such was its popularity that Faiz Ahmed Faiz lines ‘aiye haath uthayen hum bhi’ made into the title song under the legendary composer Anil Biswas’ baton was on everybody’s lips.
The success of Hum Log sparked a programming and commercial revolution of sorts. It permanently changed the way the public broadcaster started sourcing its programmes. And when satellite television came in a big way in mid- 1990s offering the producers another outlet to showcase their talent, Doordarshan found itself in the lurch.
I am of the firm belief that a national broadcaster must embrace the talent available outside its precincts. But in doing so it must also create an eco-system where its in-house talent is sufficiently incentivized to display its creativity and simultaneously eliminating deadwood.
Perhaps, when these serials were first introduced in early 1980s, not much thought was given by the decision makers to integrating the programme out-sourcing policy into a larger organisation’s strategic vision – something that BBC has done so admirably.
(The author is Advisor (MC) with reputed Apeejay Education Society)